Forecasting any market is problematic. The industry events of 2017 prove just how unpredictable and changeable the mobility sector can be. Nevertheless, estimating likely trends, challenges and opportunities is a vital part of any dealer or supplier’s strategy. Here, equipment providers offer their views and insights into the factors that they believe could shape the mobility market in the year ahead.
Breakthrough innovations, retail upsets, unforeseen closures and takeovers. Last year was nothing short of a rollercoaster ride for dealers and suppliers in the market and as any seasoned healthcare professional will know, expecting the unexpected is an important part of running a successful business. But as much as companies will brace themselves for sudden twists and turns, they know that strategising the elements within their control places them in good stead for their financial year.
And for some this means consolidating and reaffirming their propositions so that they are as watertight as possible for the months ahead. WheelAIR for example, which only launched last year, will spend 2018 continuing to build on its fledgling brand and expanding its team with a view to driving sales and marketing internationally.
Corien Staels, CEO of wheelAIR and creator of the cooling wheelchair backrest solution, also reveals that the Scottish start-up will be announcing “some exciting partnerships” as it embarks on the next stage of product innovation.
And like Staels, Richard Kusnierz, director of All Terrain Wheelchairs, knows that staying focused on customer needs is a sure-fire way of ensuring the business’s foundation is solid. “We always strive to give the best support possible to our customers and this will carry on as we grow,” he says. “We are looking at taking on a dedicated service engineer to keep our support at its best.”
But while honing and consolidation are important, businesses will not want to stand still. Far from it, proactively seeking and taking advantage of new opportunities is key to staying ahead of competition. From a reseller’s perspective this is especially important.
Change Mobility, which is a subsidiary company of care equipment supplier Beaucare, is looking at diversifying its business in line with current industry trends. As part of a recent partnership with brighterkind care home, The Granby in Harrogate, Change Mobility will be providing a mobility and walk-in clinic offering a range of advice and solutions for individuals with a scope of requirements.
“Alexa and Google cast are replacing technology that has traditionally been supplied by wheelchair control manufacturers, which is opening up the marketplace where there has usually been a small number of players”
More and more mobility retailers are adjusting their propositions so that they include more healthcare and mobility advice, rather than only selling equipment. The growing importance of signposting is coming to the fore and it is a trend that appears to be continuing. Alongside product developments then, retail outlets themselves could be set to undergo physical changes to their formats, layout and overall proposition.
Adding to this, managing director Jonathan Brown explains how Change Mobility will also be involved in monthly talks for individuals, carers, families and nurses. “Some of the talks scheduled for the upcoming months cover topics such as strength and balance, fall preventions and funding care. Change Mobility is also looking to expand its range of electric power chairs to meet increasing customer demand for these products.”
Outside of the business, Brown is also aware of the opportunities which need to be capitalised on. “An ageing population means the use of mobility equipment will also increase. Growing opportunities in the sector include the increased expenditure on mobility aids and the rise of bespoke equipment for specific conditions,” he says.
While more expenditure on equipment is a given, considering the ageing and growing population, providers know that cost is still a priority for both trade customers and end-users. Tom Hulbert, Yorkshire Care Equipment’s CEO, thinks that this year will see therapists and large care organisations, like the NHS, taking more measures to be as cost-effective as possible.
“This is a great opportunity for Yorkshire Care Equipment as we continue to research and design equipment that can be adapted to suit most service users, without compromising on the overall look and support that particular product brings.”
The notion of research and design brought up by Hulbert is very relevant in the market today and will be moving forward. 2017 saw some exciting developments and innovations in various sectors of the industry and many manufacturers and suppliers already have detailed plans of the products they hope to roll out later this year. Angling products towards current trends is important and for Kusnierz that means the incorporation of apps and smartphone technology with equipment, especially powerchairs.
“Alexa and Google Cast are replacing technology that has traditionally been supplied by wheelchair control manufacturers, which is opening up the marketplace where there has usually been a small number of players,” comments Kusnierz. “These smart devices are empowering wheelchair users to take control of their own lives by helping with communications and daily needs. It is our hope that the voice of the user gains more volume, empowering freedom and choice. This could create fantastic opportunities for every part of the value chain. It’s exciting to see barriers being broken down by this type of technology.”
And while product design is changing with new technologies being incorporated, the whole culture around disability aids is evolving with society understanding the need to accommodate for people with limited mobility. That’s the view of Staels, who believes that recent media coverage of events, such as the Invictus Games has created more awareness of unaddressed needs within the mobility industry, especially among graduates, leading to “a continuous stream of innovation”.
Staels, who came up with the idea for the wheelAIR during her Masters degree at Glasgow University, adds: “[The new innovations] might not all be viable and practical, but we think the speed of innovation is definitely picking up, meaning that bigger and older companies will have to be agile and flexible to keep up with the new kids on the block. This will hopefully also have some influence on policy over the next year, possibly resulting in increased funding to allow people to buy the assistive tech that will improve their lifestyles.”
Adapting to thrive
As much as companies must keep an eye out for opportunities, it goes without saying that detecting and reacting to challenges is paramount. The market last year proved testing, especially for retailers, with some finding the pressures too much to bear. There are some difficulties which transcend the supply chain and affect both dealers and manufacturers. And one of these, Staels believes, is the shift in consumer behaviour from in-store to online combined with a population not always ready to adapt.
She explains: “The mobility industry, in our opinion, has remained relatively unchanged for decades. However, recently it has had to rapidly adapt to quick changing markets. How do you position yourself as a retailer when only the older generation comes to your physical store but you also have to be trendy enough to attract the young? Nike is allowing you to completely customise your shoes online with a live image of what it will look like. Why aren’t we bringing these modern systems to our industry too?
“Then there is the challenge of mega-stores such as Amazon and Argos moving into the mobility industry. The only way to stay ahead of them as a small retailer will be through service offering. But how do you offer this when physical stores are disappearing? As you can see, staying aware of industry challenges is a central focus for us at Staels Design. As a small firm, we face these challenges as we move forward into 2018. We will have to compete with huge companies and carefully consider how best to reach our end-user in this changing market space.”
“How do you position yourself as a retailer when only the older generation comes to your physical store but you also have to be trendy enough to attract the young?”
Aside from retail, suppliers going through channels like the NHS, which is arguably the largest mobility equipment customer in the UK, anticipate a tough time with Government cuts to local authorities and the NHS. Hulbert says with less money to invest in high quality products, the industry is likely to see fewer opportunities in the public sector.
But with difficulties come chances to adapt and evolve. While there is no getting away from the complications of online or Government cuts, pressures create the prospect of changing propositions, retail models and product portfolios to suit new trading environments. And by evolving, businesses are better preparing themselves for both the short term and long term and are more likely to be able to stand up to challenges while cashing in on opportunities.
Both retailers and suppliers will need to work together in the coming months to secure the best outcome for all parties. And looking back at 2017, where support and new products came thick and fast, dealers can generally expect plenty of back-up to see them through.
Likewise, most distributors know the importance of keeping up-to-date and are continually improving their proposition to ensure suppliers’ products retail successfully. Whatever 2018 might bring, there is likely to be no shortage of innovation and adaptation in all sectors across the supply chain.